Sei Shonagon – Cranky Ladies of History

When I taught English in Japan, I’d often ask students what they liked most about living in Japan. The two most common answers were: Japanese food and the fact that Japan has four seasons. The second answer initially struck me as an odd thing to say – don’t most countries outside of tropical zones have four seasons? But what the students meant is that Japan has distinctive festivals, customs, food and weather for each of the four seasons.

The opening of The Pillow Book records what Sei Shonagon likes about each season:

In Spring it is the dawn. As gradually the hills come to light, their outline is faintly dyed with red, and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.

In Summer, the nights. Not only when the moon shines down, but on dark nights, too, when the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!

In Autumn, the evenings – evenings when one is moved to see the brilliant sun sink close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; or more charming still, a file of wild geese, tiny in the distant sky. And when finally the sun has set, how moving to hear the sound of the wind and the cry of the insects!

In Winter, the early morning. Beautiful indeed when it has snowed during the night, but delightful, too, when the ground is white with frost; or even when it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room, stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well it fits the season’s mood.


The Cranky Ladies Anthology fundraising campaign is running until April 1 on Pozible. The campaign has already been successfully funded, but is looking for stretch goals. I’m one of the potential contributors and pitched a story idea about Sei Shonagon. She wrote The Pillow Book, a journal about her life at court in the Heian period.

Shonagon served as a lady-in-waiting for the Empress Teishi. The Pillow Book was written around 1000 AD and is one of the classics of Japanese literature. The book is full of lists of things that Shonagon likes and dislikes. Some of the lists aren’t that interesting, but others are fascinating for what they reveal about life in a different era. The real joy in the book comes from Shonagon’s personality – she was an erudite, opinionated woman that didn’t suffer fools and was known for intimidating the men of court with her knowledge of poetry.

Annoying things

A man you’ve had to conceal in some unsatisfactory hiding place, who then begins to snore. Or, a man comes on a secret visit wearing a particularly tall lacquered cap, and of course as he scuttles in hastily he manages to knock it against something with a loud bump.

People who go about in a carriage with squeaky wheels are very irritating. It makes you wonder irately if they’re deaf. And if you find yourself riding in one you’ve borrowed from someone, you even begin to loathe its owner.

Things that make you feel cheerful

An ox carriage crammed with ladies on their way back from some viewing expedition, sleeves tumbling out in profusion, with a great crowd of carriage boys running with it, skilfully guiding the ox as the carriage hurtles along.

A particularly eloquent Yin-yang master whom you’ve called in goes down to the dry river-bed and proceeds to rid you of a curse.

Unsuitable things

Snow falling on the houses of the common people. Moonlight shining into such houses is also a great shame.

An ageing woman who is pregnant. It’s disgusting when she has a young husband, and even worse when she’s in a temper over his going off to another woman.

An old man who’s nodding off, or a heavily bearded old fellow popping nuts into his mouth.

A toothless crone screwing up her face as she eats sour plums.

A commoner wearing crimson skirted trousers. These days you seem to see them wherever you look.

Refined  and elegant things

A girl’s over-robe of white on white over pale violet-grey.

The eggs of the spot-billed duck.

Shaved ice with a sweet syrup, served in a shiny new metal bowl.

A crystal rosary.

Wisteria flowers.

Snow on plum blossoms.

An adorable little child eating strawberries.

Regrettable things

A like-minded company of women or men sets off together from the palace to visit a temple or some other place. The sleeves spill tastefully out from their carriage, scrupulously, even overscrupulously, arranged – so much so that someone of taste might find the effect if anything a bit repellant – and then, to everyone’s deep chagrin, you don’t meet with a single horse or carriage bearing anyone who could appreciate the effect. It’s quite extraordinary how, from sheer vexation, you find yourself longing for even some passing commoner to have the sensibility to appreciate the scene, and later spread the word.

Worthless things

Someone who’s both ugly and unpleasant.

Clothing starch that’s gone bad – I know an awful lot of people hate this, but that’s no reason why I shouldn’t note it here.

And why should I avoid mentioning here the fire tongs that are burned in the post-funeral fire? After all, these are things that exist in the world. I never intended this book to be seen by others, so I’ve written whatever came into my mind, without worrying about whether people would find it strange or unpleasant.

Shonagon also had plenty of opinions on how things should be.

A priest who gives a sermon should be handsome. After all, you’re most aware of the profundity of his teaching if you’re gazing at his face as he speaks. If your eyes drift elsewhere you tend to forget what you’ve just heard, so an unattractive face has the effect of making you feel quite sinful.

Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.

To be properly impressive and delightful, a page boy should be small, and have very neat hair, with a slight glint to it, and a crisp hairline. He should have a pretty voice, and speak decorously and politely.

Young people and babies should be plump. Provincial Governors and suchlike people who have some authority should also be on the portly side.

Shonagon had definite views on how her lovers should behave.

It’s delightful to see someone who’s a great ladies’ man, and is pursuing numerous love affairs, arriving home at dawn from who knows what night-time tryst. Sleepy though you can see he feels, he nevertheless sits down and draws the inkstone up to write his next-morning letter to her. See how carefully he grinds the ink to a fine consistency, and how tenderly he bends to the task of writing, not merely dashing off whatever springs to mind but putting himself heart and soul into what he writes.

It’s very unseemly for a man who’s visiting a gentlewoman to eat while with her. Any lady who provides him with food is also despicable…Personally, even if a man is terribly drunk and ends up having to spend the night, I won’t feed him so much as a dish of warmed-over rice. It wouldn’t matter to me if he decided I was heartless and unfeeling, and never called again.

Shonagon had a dim view of commoners and those not quite as smart as her.

It’s terribly depressing to discover some quite worthless person blithely reciting a poem that you yourself had particularly liked and carefully copied down in a notebook.

Still, I thought, it’s no good being bashful and hesitant when it comes to poetic composition. Where does that ever get you?

I really can’t understand people who get angry when they hear gossip about others. How can you not discuss other people? Apart from your own concerns, what can be more beguiling to talk about and criticize than other people? But sadly, it seems it’s wrong to discuss others, not to mention the fact that the person who’s talked about can get to hear of it and be outraged. Of course if it’s someone you have a close bond with, you pause and consider the pain you might cause, and choose to keep your criticism to yourself – though if it weren’t someone close to you you’d no doubt go ahead and say it, and have a laugh at their expense.

Little is known about Shonagon’s life outside of what she recorded in The Pillow Book. The Empress Teishi lost influence in court and it’s not certain what happened to Shonagon after that. She may have become a Buddhist nun or may have married a provincial governor.

Everything that cries in the night is wonderful. With the exception, of course, of babies.

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4 comments on “Sei Shonagon – Cranky Ladies of History
  1. Adam says:

    I guess in Shonagan never believed in the old adage, “the way to a mans heart is through his belly”. Or perhaps she took that literally, aided by a knife.

  2. Erin says:

    Class conscious much? Wow, regular people shouldn’t even have snow or moonlight? I might have to steal that attitude for a character. 😉

  3. Aidan says:

    I know. It’s just terrible when regular people use your moonlight.

  4. Janet says:


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